Reverend soothes restless Restalrig

4th February 2000 at 00:00
The letter from the local councillor contained the usual vocabulary of residents complaining about young people's behaviour. "Gangs of youths", "anti-social activities", "fed-up residents" featured prominently. There was scant prospect that the public meeting, scheduled for 7pm on a Friday evening, would be a bundle of fun.

Heads received a direct request for a member of each school's management team to turn out. I sensed immediately that this unique development opportunity had my name on it. If the other members of senior management responded affirmatively to all the invitations they receive, they could save on council tax as their homes could be classified legitimately as unoccupied. Having located the YWCA, I trudged wearily through the chill winter evening to join the other local heads, housing officers, police and social workers at the designated rendezvous. It was standing room only as around 150, mostly elderly Restalrigers packed the hall.

Proceedings were immediately enlivened by the unconventional but charismatic approach of the chairman, Councillor Ewan Aitken, who single-handedly turned the occasion into an interesting and even entertaining event. Cutting a slightly eccentric figure in his multi-coloured earrings, and the wooden cross dangling round his neck, he appeared to be known as Ewan to all present.

It was a risky strategy to divide the animated audience into groups, assigning the unsuspecting officers and headteachers as facilitators. However, his good humour and familiar, reassuring manner won the day, as he astutely offered every individual present the opportunity to say their piece. One old lady of 86 asked me to write down for Ewan that she had pestered the council for months for an outside light. When it was eventually installed, it lasted only a few hours before being vandalised. Handless though I am, I felt like going around to fix it for her.

When the cops took the floor, they were on a hidingto nothing. Confronted with numerous tales of unanswered calls, they could only apologise with explanations of undermanning and competing priorities. One perceptive citizen enquired why myriads of police could magically appear on the day of a football match. Good question, missus.

Emphasising the need for a community response rather than for blame, Mr Aitken, an ordained minister, held the gathering together despite the determination of individuals to get some old-fashioned recrimination going. It was all the fault of Edinburgh Council, opined one aerated resident, for allowing outsiders into the area. He was objecting to immigration into Restalrig, not from the Third World but from other parts of Edinburgh.

The emphasis was squarely maintained on providing positive outlets for the energies of young people and on ensuring that every voice was heard. A list of all the activities available to teenagers was circulated, and Mr Aitken undertook to publish a list of individual concerns and to raise them with the appropriate agencies. He would also intervene personally to speak to offending youngsters whenever possible. This was the multi-agency approach made real. Everybody with a role to play was summoned to action and left in no doubt about the needs. There was no jargon, no endless discussions, no bulging files. It was regrettable that parents of school-age children were conspicuous by their absence, as the senior citizens pleaded for a Hamilton-style curfew on their unruly offspring.

The pensioner who wrote on her sheet: "I can hear them shouting and swearing at my window, but I can't see them" is a typical victim of a chronic cancer gnawing at the heart of our communities. The abused old folk of Restalrig may not find immediate relief from their predicament, but they are blessed in having the Reverend Ewan Aitken to listen and speak on their behalf.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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